Sunday February 3, 2013

LEE -- Lee wants to join the nearly 200 cities, towns and school districts that have collectively saved more than $200 million under the state’s 18-month-old municipal health care reform law.

Town officials and municipal union leaders are working toward a deal intended to reduce the increase in Lee’s health insurance premiums for fiscal 2014 starting July 1, according to Town Administrator Robert Nason.

"The plan we’re looking to propose would meet the needs of the workers and be affordable to [taxpayers]," Nason said. "Health insurance is one of our biggest budget breakers."

The nearly $2.9 million in health insurance costs accounts for 14 percent of the town’s $20.2 million operating budget for fiscal 2013, which ends July 1. The $2.9 million reflects a nearly 5 percent increase from fiscal 2012, atop the 10 percent hike the previous budget year.

A state law enacted in July 2011 allows municipalities and school districts to join the state-sponsored Group Insurance Commission system or develop their own health insurance plan comparable to savings under the GIC.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s administration recently cited statewide savings of $207 million in municipal health care costs under the new law.

"With labor at the table, municipal health care reform has had a powerful and immediate impact on municipal finances across the commonwealth, while maintaining quality, affordable health care for working families," Patrick stated in a press release.


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Under the law, communities can force the issue by adopting and using a provision creating a timeline both a municipality and union officials must follow to reach an accord on health insurance savings or join the GIC.

Last week, the Lee Board of Selectmen unanimously approved acceptance of the provision, but indicated using it to reach a health insurance cost-cutting plan will be a last resort.

"Just because we voted this doesn’t mean we’re going to evoke this," said Selectman Gordon Bailey.

Nevertheless, the 114-member Lee Education Association -- the teacher’s union that represents the majority town employees -- is concerned about having the state law hanging over its head.

"Having that legislation out there, we don’t need it knowing we have a good process in place," said LEA President Ginger Armstrong.

Armstrong was referring to the current cordial negotiations between the town and union officials that began in mid-December. Both sides are gathering information to help them craft the best plan possible for paying future health insurance costs, according to Town Treasurer Donna Toomey.

"We’re moving in the right direction, we just don’t have al the possible [health insurance] rates yet," Toomey said.

Town officials and the eight municipal bargaining units hope to reach an agreement on a more cost effective health insurance plan by Lee’s Annual Town Meeting in early May.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.